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The messages concealed in the bronze ciborium of St. Charles Borromeo

Renewed Eucharistic splendour glows from the altar of the Duomo di Milano

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1 March Mar 2019 1122 01 March 2019

The ciborium, which dominates the main altar of the Duomo di Milano, is the heart of the Cathedral’s Eucharistic life.

It could be considered the architectural element that, more than others, recalls the legacy of St. Charles’ Liturgical Reform (ca. 1580), specifically regarding the themes narrated in bronze, but we shall take a few steps back in time to understand why.

When Card. Charles Borromeo came to Milan in 1565 as Archbishop, he appointed Pellegrino Tibaldi (called Pellegrini), architect of Veneranda Fabbrica from 1567 to 1585, to create a new presbytery that would implement the Counter-Reformation model of the church in the Duomo to celebrate Eucharistic worship even outside the mass, thus contrasting the Lutheran negation of the actual presence of Christ in bread and wine.

Hence, the Holy Eucharist was given the utmost importance in symbolic references and in the episodes portrayed.

St. Charles’ project followed a solution that had already been proposed by Nicolò Ormaneto, Borromeo’s Vicar General during his absence from Milan in 1564-65. The tower-shaped tabernacle lifted by angels (it was donated by Pius IV, at the time Giovanni Angelo Medici, to his nephew Charles Borromeo during his episcopacy) was placed at the centre of the monumental bronze ciborium, which was designed ex novo.

Visually the displayed presence of the Holy Eucharist in the presbytery formed the one-point perspective not only of the Cathedral’s architectural lines. In fact, it also summarised the spiritual tension dictated by usinf the presbytery both for festive celebrations and as weekday chapel.

The faithful had to solely focus on the ciborium, while the former altar was turned into the base of the ciborium itself. Hence, adoration and worship were emphasised.

The ciborium designed and constructed by Pellegrino Tibaldi in the 1580s features 8 bronze Corinthian columns with capitals and golden details. They support a dome that is lined, both inside and outside, with embossed, gold-plated bronze sheets. The circular architrave that embraces the perimeter of the dome counts 8 bronze angels with the symbols of the Passion. An almost life-size statue of the Blessing Resurrected Christ is placed at the top.

This construction stands on a composite-shaped base that includes four steps to access the tabernacle and a complex shape that develops to a height of ca. 10 m with maximum width 6 m. The tabernacle alone, which is placed at its centre, is 2.30 m high with base diameter ca. 1 m. The latter, one of the most precious masterpieces of art, was made in Rome, designed by Pirro Ligorio and cast in bronze on a model by Aurelio, Gerolamo and Lodovico, the Solaro brothers from Lombardy who designed the creation.

There are many references to the Holy Eucharistic, precisely decorations with grape vines and ears of wheat, the life of Jesus depicted in 8 scenes in the lower base, Melchisedech’s offering presented as the first episode narrated, after Prophet Elijah with the bread, the food the angel brought him for his long journey. An actual example of the Counter-Reformation’s new expressiveness.

The ciborium was the source of deep architectural, spatial and artistic inspiration, and became the model for many variations during the subsequent European Baroque period.

The restoration of the ciborium was completed in 2015. All operations concerning metal parts and cleaning were performed by three highly qualified restorers under the guidance of Dr. Stefano Lanuti, owner of Studio Angelucci. Workers from Veneranda Fabbrica’s Construction Site provided a crucial contribution for all that concerned handling and disassembling the various parts.

Here the YouTube video about the ciborium of Milan Cathedral